The Story Behind Norman Rockwell’s ‘Thanksgiving Picture’

Norman Rockwell’s “Thanksgiving Picture” is one of the most iconic images ever created of American life.

First published in the March 6, 1943 weekly edition of The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell worried that the presentation of such a large turkey at the center of the bountiful and happy feast back home might cause unhappiness among the American troops fighting in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific at a time when the tide of the war had not yet turned. It was still more than a year before the successful D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy June 6, 1944.

Among the troops, the reaction was largely the opposite of what Rockwell feared.

In fact, the alternate name given the picture, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” bespoke the optimism it engendered among American soldiers and sailors serving in far off lands. It offered them a reminder of what they were fighting for, and gave them a future to which they sought to return.

How the picture has come to be seen over time has obscured some of the controversy that surrounded its creation.

On January 6, 1941–a full 11 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America entering World War II–President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his most famous State of the Union address to Congress.

The address was labeled “The Four Freedoms Speech,” and in it Roosevelt outlined four freedoms he argued were the universal rights of everyone in the world, not just American citizens:

1. Freedom of speech
2. Freedom of worship
3. Freedom from want
4. Freedom from fear

Roosevelt had just been elected to an unprecedented third term as president and was looking for political support for the Lend-Lease bill he was about to introduce to Congress, whose purpose was to finance the construction of armaments and war material that could be shipped to Great Britain, which had been engaged in a deadly war of survival with Nazi Germany since the fall of 1939.

The first two freedoms — freedom of speech and freedom of worship — were not controversial at all, as they were embodied within the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The second two freedoms, however, included a crucial change in the preposition used — “of” became “from” — and asserted rights for everyone in the world that are not found in the Constitution — freedom from want and freedom from fear.

To New Dealers, the addition of these two new freedoms — scholars refer to them as “positive liberties” as opposed the more familiar Constitutional “negative liberties”– represented a logical extension of the social welfare state.

To conservative critics–then and now–the addition of these two positive liberties in Roosevelt’s assertion of universal rights represented a dangerous embrace of Statism and an abandonment of individual responsibility.

In the 1940s, The Saturday Evening Post, published weekly, was the most widely read and popular magazine in the United States. Norman Rockwell’s art had been a defining feature of the publication since his work first graced its cover in 1916. Over the next 50 years, Rockwell’s work was on the cover of the magazine 300 different times.

After the United States entered World War II in December, 1941, the management and owners of The Post felt it was paramount that the populace support the war effort, both politically and financially, despite their general opposition to Roosevelt’s New Deal.

To encourage that support, in 1942 they commissioned their star artist, Rockwell, to create four magazine covers that could communicate the meaning of President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, resonate with the American people, and bolster their support for the war effort.

Rockwell labored seven months to create the four iconic covers, which ran in four consecutive weeks of the Post’s editions published from February to March 1943.

Each cover was accompanied by an essay.

In the case of “Freedom from Want,” the essay was assigned to Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino-American immigrant and labor union organizer who presented a picture of America quite different from the bountiful happiness rendered by Rockwell, who used photographs of friends from the small town in which he lived, Arlington, Vermont, for the people who joyfully crowded around the Thanksgiving table.

“If you want to know what we are, look upon the farms or upon the hard pavements of the city. You usually see us working or waiting for work, and you think you know us, but our outward guise is more deceptive than our history,” Bulosan began, adding:

Our history has many strands of fear and hope that snarl and converge at several points in time and space. We clear the forest and the mountains of the land. We cross the river and the wind. We harness wild beast and living steel. We celebrate labor, wisdom, peace of the soul.

When our crops are burned or plowed under, we are angry and confused. Sometimes we ask if this is the real America. Sometimes we watch our long shadows and doubt the future. But we have learned to emulate our ideals from these trials. We know there were men who came and stayed to build America. We know they came because there is something in America that they needed, and which needed them.

We march on, though sometimes strange moods fill our children. Our march toward security and peace is the march of freedom—the freedom that we should like to become a living part of. It is the dignity of the individual to live in a society of free men, where the spirit of understanding and belief exists; of understanding that all men, whatever their color, race, religion or estate, should be given equal opportunity to serve themselves and each other according to their needs and abilities.

But we are not really free unless we use what we produce. So long as the fruit of our labor is denied us, so long will want manifest itself in a world of slaves.

His essay ended as angrily as it began:

But our march to freedom is not complete unless want is annihilated. The America we hope to see is not merely a physical but also a spiritual and intellectual world. We are the mirror of what America is. If America wants us to be living and free, then we must be living and free. If we fail, then America fails.

What do we want? We want complete security and peace. We want to share the promise and fruits of American life. We want to be free from fear and hunger.

If you want to know what we are—We are Marching!

It remains a bit of a mystery why the Post’s management chose to include an essay so tightly aligned with the New Deal social welfare zealots they opposed so vehemently.

As for Rockwell, the man whose artistic genius captured the essence of traditional American values, his own political philosophy–described by some as independent, by others as a New Deal supporter, and still others as none of the above–what remains is the art, which grows more powerful with each passing year.

Bulosan died in obscurity in 1956. Rockwell lived amid fame and acclaim until 1978.

But the two different visions of America they presented to readers of the March 6, 1943 edition of The Saturday Evening Post are today even further apart than they were more than 74 years ago.

 In March, The Norman Rockwell Museum “announced details of the first internationally touring exhibition devoted to Rockwell’s iconic depictions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms,” in a press release:

Organized by the Museum, Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms explores how Rockwell’s 1943 paintings—which gave visual voice to Roosevelt’s call to the defense of freedom worldwide—came to be embraced by millions of Americans, providing crucial aid to the War effort and taking their place among the most enduring images in the history of American art. The exhibition and its six-city tour will open at New-York Historical Society on May 25, 2018.

The Norman Rockwell Museum is located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and is open to the public seven days a week, year round.


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